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The city of Palenque. Source: Jérôme Rommé / Adobe Stock.

Palenque – The Splendor of a Great Maya Metropolis


Hidden in the verdant hills of the Sierra Chapaneca in the beautiful state of Chiapas, southern Mexico, is the ancient capital of the B’aakal Kingdom. The name of the city then was Lakamha’ in Maya-Yucatec language. The town is today called by its Spanish name, Santo Domingo de Palenque.

Remains of impressive Maya temple-pyramids and palaces abound all over Mesoamerica. Many archaeological sites overwhelm visitors by their monumental architecture. Few are as remarkable as Palenque for its fine palaces and temple-pyramids. The layout of this UNESCO World Heritage site, and its location within a jungle clad mountain range, is replete with springs, streams, and waterfalls overlooking the plains of Tabasco.

The Area of Palenque

The 1998-2000 PMP-Palenque Mapping Project under Mexico’s Instituto de Antropologia e Historia management and Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, led by Dr. Edwin L. Barnhart, recorded and mapped 1481 structures at Palenque. The PMP covered 0.850 square miles (2.2 square kilometers) of the city jungle shrouded plateau.

The area referred to as “Central Palenque”, that is open to visitors, accounts for less than a hundred buildings and structures. All others are still covered under a dense tropical rain forest. At its height during the Classic period (250-900 CE); the urban population may have reached 7500-8000 souls.

Early morning, when nature awakes and the mist from the rainforest slowly lifts, the welcoming calls of howler monkeys greet visitors, together with the shriek of tropical birds. Palenque’s ancient name probably came from the cluster of small rivers, that come out from the upper slopes of the Yemal K’uk’ Lakam Wiz or “Great Mountain of the Descending Quetzal” that overlooks the city. The ancient name Lakamha’ translates as “place of big waters” for its numerous streams and rivers that fall through ravines and over great natural stair-steps.

The palace at Palenque. (© / Author Supplied)

The palace at Palenque. (© / Author Supplied)

Shrouded in the mist of time one wonders, who lived here? At its height from the end of the 5 th to mid-9 th century, it was an important metropolis and a major player in political and trade in the region.
Its greatest achievement was in architecture and the arts. The 7 th century saw the birth and death of one of the greatest mid-Classic lords in Maya history, K’inich’ Janahab’ Pakal, (603-683).

The Rulers of Ancient Palenque

By all accounts Pakal was the greatest ahau (lord or ruler) of the B’aakal Kingdom, as it was then called. His title, like lords before and after him, K’uhul B’aakal Ajaw translates as “Sacred Lord of the B’aakal Kingdom”, that underlines the commanding secular and religious functions of Maya rulers.

His 68 year reign (615-683), was one of the longest in Maya history. Pakal inherited the kingdom at the young age of 12 but was the sacred lord at 23. During the interregnum, his mother Sak K’uk’ Ajaw governed as regent, but not as a lord of the realm.

K’inich’ Janahab’ Pakal’s funerary mask, he was one of the greatest lords of Palenque. (Arqueologia Mexicana / Author Supplied)

K’inich’ Janahab’ Pakal’s funerary mask, he was one of the greatest lords of Palenque. (Arqueologia Mexicana / Author Supplied)

Pakal’s wife, Ix Tzak B’u Ahaw was from Ux Te Kuh’, the northwest city where his family took refuge, when Palenque was burned by the K’an (serpent) Kingdom proxies twice, in 519 and 611. She is buried next to her husband’s mausoleum, the Temple of the Inscriptions. Her resting place is Temple XIII, referred to as the Temple of the Red Queen, for the large amount of hematite, a red pigment iron oxide found in her sarcophagus.

The Palace of Palenque

The palace was the seat of power, now open to visitors, was built on a massive irregular quadrangle; it was a ceremonial and administrative building. Large stairways on four sides allowed access to the vaulted halls that ringed the quadrangle. The massive north stairway was ceremonial, while the south side was utilitarian.

The palace was the seat of power in Palenque. (© / Author Supplied)

The palace was the seat of power in Palenque. (© / Author Supplied)

The complex is made of a complicated system of vaulted buildings, lengthy halls, and three courtyards. Major buildings in the city were covered with stucco and painted red except one, the throne room, House.E the Sak Nuk Naah that was painted white, hence its name as the “Main White House”.

The PMP project discovered a palace complex west of central Palenque, that is still under the jungle canopy, and is significantly larger than the palace. Of note the names assigned to buildings by archaeologists do not always reflect their true function at the time; ‘temple’ and ‘palace’ are but terms of convenience.

In the middle of the palace complex (quadrangle at right in the representation below), the tower’s third floor holds an altar built of limestone mixed with a large quantity of seashells from the Caribbean and the Pacific. The altar may have been dedicated to ceremonies linked to the legendary Matwiil, the Primordial Seas, a belief that may have been supported by numerous marine fossils found in the limestone of the mountain range. All major buildings in the city, were covered with stucco and painted red, an impressive display of power to visitors.

Palenque 600-650 AD. (© / Author Supplied)

Palenque 600-650 AD. (© / Author Supplied)

On the palace east side runs the Otolum River, its banks walled up as an aqueduct, a key part of the important and elaborate water management system of the city. Bathrooms were found below the plaza level. The palace was mainly used for administrative and ceremonial purposes for the ruler, members of the nobility with bureaucratic functions, scribes, high priests, and formal state receptions of ambassadors and important visitors.

People did not reside in the palace; the tropical humidity and thick stone walls were not conducive to ventilation, even though long open corridors and courtyards helped in that respect. They lived outside in traditional structures set on a stone floor and a short vertical wall, from which a palisade of small section wood poles set close together with narrow spacing, supported the thatched roof.

This semi-open construction, allowed for ventilation to pass through the walls, a plus for comfort in a tropical environment. Besides, housemaids had to live in close proximity for round the clock service; they were housed in traditional wattle and daub structures with earthen floors. The residential area was located close to the palace, east of the Otolum aqueduct.

The History of Palenque

The history of the city is tumultuous with frequent wars, as well as great and not so great ‘ahau’ or lords, at its head (ahau translates as “he of the powerful voice”). At the death of her father, Ix Yohl Ik’nal Ahaw, was the only woman elevated to K’uhul B’aakal Ahaw or sacred lord of the B’aakal Kingdom (583-604). Her reign was plagued by hostility from within and without.

Regional antagonism was fueled by two enemies for different but complementary reasons. The first was Tortuguero, a city located in the northern plains of Tabasco. Leaders of that city claimed the title of K’uhul B’aakal Ahaw that Palenque rightly demanded as its historic right. A deep-seated enmity endured that fed their antagonism for generations.

The second was Calakmul, the powerful K’an (serpent) Kingdom in southwest Yucatán that fueled both cities’ antagonism for its own benefit: control of trade routes and that of the Usumacinta River, a major waterway. Calakmul’s other proxy Toniná was only 41 miles (80 kilometers) from Palenque, in today’s Ocosingo valley. This antagonism would remain a thorn in Palenque’s side through murderous wars, up to its collapse in 900-950.
There may have been another reason for such lasting enmity with the K’an Kingdom. Palenque traded and probably had political contacts, with the powerful metropolis of central Mexico, Teotihuacán.

This great city indeed spread its influence far and wide, from the central plateau of Mexico, all the way south to Kaminal Juyú, in today’s Guatemala. Calakmul may have perceived Palenque as a Mexican proxy in the Maya heartland, which would explain such long-lasting and violent antagonism.

In 659 Pakal got his revenge against the K’an Kingdom, as may be seen in the west court of the palace. The carved limestone slabs show six sahals (state officials) of Santa Elena and Pomona, other proxies of the Great Jaguar militaristic totem, Calakmul. They are shown bound and ready for execution, facing the carved steps across the courtyard that recounts Palenque’s defeat and burning in 599 and 611.

The antagonism with Tonina in particular, lasted to the end of Palenque’s dynasties. K’inich K’an Joy Chitam, Pakal’s 66 year old second son was captured during a battle in 711 and held prisoner for seven years. At that time, Tonina’s ahaw (lord) was Ruler.4 (Jaguar God? – 708-723), but he was too young at the time to have led the decisive battle.

Strangely, the Palenque lord was freed; the reason for his release and the terms attached to his freedom are unknown. After his release, he ruled Palenque for another ten years, before his death (719-720).

The Temple of the Inscriptions

The Temple of the Inscriptions, Pakal’s last resting place is truly the most important and renowned sanctuary ever built in the Americas. Its name comes from three large hieroglyphic panels found on the walls of the sanctuary atop the pyramid.

Temple of the Inscriptions in Palenque. (Christopher Evans / Author Supplied)

Temple of the Inscriptions in Palenque. (Christopher Evans / Author Supplied)

In the past, it was known as the “Temple of the Laws” because of the three 617-glyphs covered limestone panels. They narrate Pakal’s achievements and his place in the context of eternity. The temple-pyramid also had an exceptional ‘roof crest’, now lost to time. 

The crypt (closed to the public), can only be accessed from the temple on top of the pyramid. As shown in the cutaway drawing, the pyramid’s stairways from the temple at level nine lead down to the crypt, to Xibalba the “place of fright”, the underworld.

The ‘voyage’ down the pyramid is integral to each step associated with death, the four cardinal points and the symbolic colors of the Maya cross. Pakal’s chu’lel’, his spirit or soul, was first brought up the pyramid to the temple.

It was then carried down the three stairways to the door of the crypt. It is on the threshold of the crypt, that he transitioned to the otherworld and from a divine king to that of a celestial ancestor.

On Left - Temple of the Inscriptions, cutaway. On Right – First flight of stairs. (Philip Winton-Author Supplied / ©

On Left - Temple of the Inscriptions, cutaway. On Right – First flight of stairs. (Philip Winton-Author Supplied / ©

The 8-level funerary pyramid, the B’olon Eht Naah as it was then called, was planned and designed by Pakal. Its foundations were built and the sarcophagus and its slab set, about five years before Pakal’s death (683).

When the temple-pyramid was completed, on the side of the stairway to the crypt was built the Tzat Nakan, or “Serpent of the Wise Ones”, called a psychoduct by the discoverer of the stairwell and the crypt, the renowned Mexican archaeologist Alberto Ruz Lhuillier in 1949.

The conduit is made of a limestone rectangular ‘box’, with a round hollow tube inside that follows the stairs against the left wall. The ‘serpent’ links the sarcophagus with the temple above and was the conduit through which Pakal and the priest were believed to communicate. In other words, Pakal was still ‘socially alive’, with the prerogatives attached to his spiritual and material inheritance.

The Crypt of Pakal

The grandeur of the crypt, 82 feet (25 meters) down in the pyramid, with its 20 ton massive sarcophagus and 5 ton slab, both with remarkable engravings, are truly unique. The crypt is located a mere 6 feet (1.8 meters) below the level of the main plaza. Both sarcophagus and slab were built and set before the pyramid was completed by Pakal’s elder son and heir K’inich K’an Bahlam’ (635-702).

On Left - The crypt of Pakal. On Right – The crypt door. (© / Author Supplied)

On Left - The crypt of Pakal. On Right – The crypt door. (© / Author Supplied)

On the sarcophagus’ four sides are engraved Pakal’s ancestors sprouting from fruiting trees, an acknowledgement to the age-old tradition of ancestor worship and their spiritual power. The finely carved sarcophagus’ slab relates Pakal’s mythical journey after death through the underworld, and his rebirth as Hunal Ye’, the maize god.

Pakal’s Sarcophagus 5-ton slab in his crypt in Palenque. (© / Author Supplied)

Pakal’s Sarcophagus 5-ton slab in his crypt in Palenque. (© / Author Supplied)

Nine life size stucco figures are on the walls of the crypt, surrounding the sarcophagus; eight men and one woman, Lady Ol Nal. They are assumed to have been Pakal’s guardians, warding off malevolent forces when his body was carried down the steps of the pyramid to the crypt. The “Nine Lords of the Night”, as they are sometimes called, are now standing guard for a god in eternity.

Five persons, the so called ‘companions’, were sacrificed to attend and serve the ahau , now a god in the afterlife; a customary practice of ancient cultures in the Old and New Worlds for powerful individuals. They were identified as two males and a female in their late teens or early twenties (the two others could not be sexed, due to the remains deterioration). They were buried in a shallow stone cavity behind the now open massive limestone triangular door, that sealed the entrance of the crypt in 690.

The Complex of the Ancient City of Palenque

Palenque’s triadic Cross Group Complex is at the heart of the ancient city and its temple-pyramids, they are the Temple of the Cross, Temple of the Foliated Cross, and Temple of the Sun. They are accessible but, for their protection, their sanctuaries are closed to the public.

The view of central Palenque atop the Temple of the Cross is spectacular. They are collectively referred to as Palenque’s Divine Triad; and represent the tri-partite conception of the world space and royal power.

Temple of the Cross in Palenque. (© / Author Supplied)

Temple of the Cross in Palenque. (© / Author Supplied)

Each temple is the home of a god named by Henrich Berlin in 1963: God.I, God.II, and God.III, the special patron gods of Palenque, the only place in the Maya world where they appear together. They were born in Matwill, the Maya mythical world a few days apart; Berlin assumed that they may have been triplets.

In each temple is a large finely carved limestone panel, that relates the story of Pakal’s eldest son and heir, K’inich’ K’an Bahlam’ and his accession to the throne in 684. He is shown in the act of transferring lordship powers to himself, witnessed by K’awiil (God.K), the manikin scepter of royal power and his father, together with dedications to the gods of the Divine Triad.

At the entrance of the Cross Group Complex but not a part of it, one may climb up the steps to Temple.XIV to see its remarkable limestone carved panel on the back wall of the sanctuary. K’inich’ K’an Bahlam’ is shown receiving the K’awiil’ scepter from his mother Lady Tz’ak-b’u Ajaw, dressed as the moon goddess. She died 60 years earlier and once again the powerful ascendancy and dominance of ancestors over the lives of the living is displayed.

Temple.XIV sanctuary. (© / Author Supplied)

Temple.XIV sanctuary. (© / Author Supplied)

The North Group, called by archaeologists because it is located north of the palace, is of interest for the human remains found there, and for Palenque’s interaction with Teotihuacán. Human female phalanges were found that seems to indicate possible self-sacrifice ritual, seldom found during the Classic period.

The North Group in Palenque. (© / Author Supplied)

The North Group in Palenque. (© / Author Supplied)

Similar mortification rituals were still in use in Iryian Jaya highland communities (New Guinea), up to the second part of the 20 th century. Was a similar ritual practiced in Palenque and other Classic period sites? Further investigations are assuredly warranted.

A stucco frieze found at the base of Temple.V sub-structure is evidence of contact with central Mexico. It shows the figure of a man whose dress and adornment leaves no doubt as to an Early period contact with Teotihuacán, the great and powerful metropolis. The goggled eye warrior, armed with a spear thrower or atlatl in his left hand, is clearly Mexican and relates to Tlaloc, the Aztec god of rain, thunder, and war.

Numerous streams and waterfalls cascade from the “Great Mountain of the Descending Quetzal”, creating many quiet pools. The widest ones near the bottom of the mountain, are referred as “The Queen’s Baths”.

The Queen’s Baths in Palenque. (© / Author Supplied)

The Queen’s Baths in Palenque. (© / Author Supplied)

The tropical environment provided an abundance of water and forest products, from fruit trees to soft and hard woods. Watered fields at the bottom of the mountain allowed for two crops of maize and other produce a year. Wildlife from jaguars to wild turkeys and forest deer to scarlet macaws were in abundance. This exceptionally luxurious environment enhances the elegance of the site and its multiple waterfalls and pools; a beautiful experience at the end of a day’s visit to this great Maya metropolis.

Top image: The city of Palenque. Source: Jérôme Rommé / Adobe Stock.

By George Fery

George’s focus on the photography of pre-Columbian archaeological sites in Mexico and the Americas. His other site is concerned with history and travel stories that address a number of topics, from history to day living in various countries and cultures, food, architecture, and people.



Tri-lingual freelance writer and photographer based in Dallas, Texas. Travelled extensively over the last 35 years from Europe to Africa and the Americas. His web site  focuses on the history of the Americas up to the arrival of the... Read More

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